Reginald Albright sat on a wooden bench outside a federal courtroom in Memphis, Tenn., reading through a hard copy of his plea agreement one last time.
The 20-year-old former football player was ready to come clean. In December 2015, he had taken part in the botched robbery of a CVS Pharmacy on the outskirts of town. One of his accomplices had a gun; Albright was in the getaway car. The early morning holdup went awry, and the young men were quickly caught, arrested and charged.
Albright, who had no prior criminal record, wanted to put the incident behind him. The plea agreement listed one count of robbery, a felony that could send him to prison for up to 20 years. Albright listened as his attorney, Alex Wharton, explained that as a felon he would have to forfeit many of his rights, including his rights to own a gun and hold public office.
“Will I still get to vote?” Albright interrupted.
“That’s one of the rights you lose when you become a convicted felon,” Wharton said.
The next question caught the attorney off guard:
“Can I go vote,” Albright asked, “before I lose that right?”
Pleading guilty meant Albright would join the ranks of more than 6 million people nationwide who have had their voting rights stripped because of felony convictions. His home state of Tennessee is among 12 states with the most severe restrictions, often withholding voting rights long after a sentence is complete. In some cases in Tennessee, convicted felons can petition to have their rights restored, but only with the help of an outside agent, such as a parole officer. The Brennan Center for Justice has called the state’s restrictions “perhaps the most irrational and confusing felony disenfranchisement laws in the nation.”
As an African American, Albright would also become one of roughly 2.2 million black citizens in the U.S. who are barred from voting, according to statistics from the Sentencing Project.
Felon disenfranchisement laws were originally crafted in the wake of the Civil War with the specific intent of keeping newly freed blacks from going to the polls. Arguments in favor of such laws have morphed over the years, but they still disproportionately affect African Americans, with 1 in every 13 black adults in the U.S. unable to vote, statistics show. In four states, including Tennessee, at least 1 in 5 black adults is disenfranchised, according to the Sentencing Project.
Voting has always been sacred to Albright, whose story was first reported by David Waters of the the Commercial Appeal.
“I’ve been looking forward to voting since I was a kid,” Albright told The Post.
His grandfather, a Baptist preacher, instilled the importance of voting in him early on. Albright said he would ride with his grandfather to the local polling station on Election Day and wait eagerly in the car outside.
“He always taught us that you want a person who can do good not only in the United States but all over the world,” Albright said. “It played a big part in my family and my schooling.”
His mother, too, was active in elections, putting in 15-hour days at a polling station at a nearby church. In 2008, he said, the family shared an emotional moment watching the results come in as the country elected its first black president. Albright said he wanted to vote for President Obama in 2012 but he was too young.
In 2016, he hoped to cast his first vote. But late last year, he said, he made a “stupid decision.”
At 3 a.m. a couple of days after Christmas, Albright and two accomplices drove to a CVS in Whitehaven, Tenn., and tried to rob the pharmacy, WREG reported at the time. Albright waited in the car as one suspect allegedly demanded Oxycontin at gunpoint. When an employee could not get the drugs out of a safe, they fled. Police caught up with them when they crashed the vehicle in a neighboring town, according to WREG.
Relatives said they were shocked when they found out what the typically gentle, soft-spoken young man had done.
“He never been in trouble in his life. He just got with the wrong crowd,” his aunt told WREG last year.
Albright, who had worked as a crane operator for Southern Steel and a materials handler for FedEx, said he takes responsibility for his actions.
“I made a stupid decision and hurt a lot of people who care about me,” he told the Commercial Appeal. “I learned a lot of lessons.”
Albright was indicted in Tennessee federal court in April. After several months of back-and-forth in court, he agreed to plead guilty to robbing the CVS.
Outside the courtroom on Oct. 20, the day of the plea hearing, Wharton was shocked when Albright asked if he could put off signing the agreement to go vote. In nine years as an attorney, he had never heard such a request, he told The Post.
As the proceedings began, Wharton brought the issue before U.S. District Judge John T. Fowlkes.
“Judge, my client says he wants to vote and that it’s important to him,” Wharton told him.
Fowlkes paused. “Well, all right,” Wharton recalled him saying. “We can do it right now.”
With no objections from the prosecutors, Albright left the court and pushed his mother, who uses a wheelchair, several blocks to the local election commission.
“I wasn’t nervous. I was excited,” Albright said. “I had my mind made up.”
About a half-hour later, they returned.
Did you go vote, the judge asked.
Albright pointed to the “I voted” sticker on his shirt. Then he signed the plea agreement.
Albright is awaiting sentencing. Even if he serves no prison time, he will still be disenfranchised. He said he does not know when he will be able to cast his next vote, if ever, but he is hopeful.
“My interest now is getting everything in the past, looking to the future, not only for me but my family as well,” he told The Post. “The position that I’m in is easy to get into, but hard to get out of.”
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